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Sanderson and His Three Editors

Have you ever wondered how an epic fantasy novel is edited?

Rhythm of War is Brandon Sanderson’s fourth entry in a planned ten-book series called the Stormlight Archive. As part of the book’s campaign, Sanderson released a YouTube video that gives an inside look at how editors take on epic fantasy.

Rhythm of War has three editors: Devi Pillai, publisher at Tor and VP at Macmillan; Peter Ahlstrom, Sanderson’s personal editorial director; and Karen Ahlstrom, Sanderson’s personal continuity editor. These three people work in tandem with the author to read and edit the five drafts it usually takes Sanderson to finish a book.

Devi, who has worked with big publishers for over twenty years, begins by reading Sanderson’s manuscript three times: first as a fan, second with note-taking, and third with an editorial letter in mind—that’s over three thousand pages for one book! A standard editorial letter follows, and Peter later compiles every piece of suggestion and delivers it to Sanderson.

Peter’s job goes beyond the traditional scope of an editor. He not only serves as a second set of eyes for the manuscript, but he also collects all the commentary from the alpha- and beta-readers. Sanderson is very specific in how the information comes to him; when it comes to Microsoft Word, he prefers not to have commentary in the left-hand margins, so Peter annotates every piece of advice into paragraphs with numeration that refers to a separate Word doc.

Part of the reason for this specific type of documentation is because Rhythm of War (and most of Sanderson’s other books) has between thirty and fifty beta readers providing commentary—a luxury that most manuscripts don’t have. Beta reading is a process that is unique to Sanderson’s team. Beta readers offer early opinions on Sanderson’s manuscripts. When Sanderson asked Devi if other authors have beta readers, she responded, “you are an exception in how you use your beta readers … I don’t think anyone has the setup that you have in terms of using a beta reader, and having the whole group, and having Peter and all of that set up so you have it as streamlined.”

Beta reading isn’t like your typical galley or ARC. Sanderson believes it’s like having a test audience, and he’s surprised more authors don’t do it. “Movies and videogames and commercials and everybody, they all show things to test audiences and get feedback before it goes live. But a lot of writers I’ve noticed don’t.” The feedback from the betas is siphoned, and Peter delivers it to Sanderson if enough people bring attention to a certain aspect of the book.

Then there’s Karen’s job. She is the wiki keeper—she keeps track of timelines, characters, descriptions (i.e. making sure Sanderson doesn’t give blue eyes to a character who had brown eyes in the previous book), etc. An entire read-through of the manuscript is dedicated to assigning Spren (the nature spirits that inhabit the world of the Stormlight Archive). With this being the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive and planning six more, there’s a lot of information to keep track of. Karen also keeps Sanderson aware of flashbacks, dates, and times (especially when multiple scenes occur on the same day). She even gives advice on Sanderson’s world-naming by clearing up pronunciation issues and ensuring there aren’t any similarities with other universes.

Rhythm of War is undoubtedly a daunting task for its editors, and maybe even more so for the author. Like any author-editor relationship, there is bound to be some push and pull when it comes to the editing process. But Sanderson notes that he trusts his editors and agrees with roughly 70 to 80 percent of the comments that come his way. The editors and his beta readers help make the books just as much as Sanderson does. Sanderson knows that when enough people say the book is not working, then they are probably right.

You can find the full discussion on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel. For anyone interested in becoming an editor, this is how fantasy best sellers are made.